Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Busted by Neil Gaiman

Went to the Neil Gaiman book signing Sunday night at Borders, Baileys Crossroads, VA. That store brings in a lot of big-time writers, but since it's a pretty long drive for me, the only other time I'd been there was to see Orson Scott Card. But since I was already in DC (only 15 minutes away) and I wanted to see Gaiman, I decided it would be worth the effort to go. It was.

About an hour before the event, I bought the new Gaiman book Anansi Boys and visited with my good friend John, talking books, music...all the important stuff in life.

Gaiman finally came out – wearing all black, of course – gave a brief intro., then read the dedication of the new book. He said he'd already started the tour by reading portions of the book from the beginning, so we were treated to a scene from Chapter Two. With 300+ people in front of me, I couldn't see Gaiman too well, but I did see everyone around me, following along in their copies as Gaiman read. I don't know – it reminded me of watching the first day of classes as a college freshman or kids in catechism class or something. (Take that for what you will.)

I couldn't hear most of the questions during Q&A, but heard most of the answers. Gaiman's early influences were The Chronicles of Narnia and Michael Moorcock's Stormbringer. (And later Delany, Zelazny, Ellison) His school library had battered copies of The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, but not The Return of the King. So when he finished the first two volumes, he read them again. Two years later when he won the school's English prize, the judges told him he could have any book he wanted. "The Return of the King!" he demanded.

John and I finally got to meet Gaiman at about 11:00 PM. He was visibly tired (The event started at 7:30.), but still very cordial and courteous. I handed him my copy of Anansi Boys to sign and also an advance reader's copy of Stardust. Gaiman took one look at the cover of the ARC and froze. "Just a moment," he said. "I've let this go on too long and I'm going to do something about it right now."

Oh crap, I thought. He's got something against signing ARCs. I'm in for it now.

He calls for his agent and she comes over in an instant. "Look at this," he says, pointing to the cover of the ARC. I'm looking for the nearest exit, figuring Gaiman is going to rip up/batter/put a blowtorch to my ARC, but I want to figure out how to grab my copy of Anansi Boys away from him so I can at least survive the experience with something.

"This cover," Gaiman says, "was never published except on the advance reader's copies. This is a lovely cover. Can we get this cover on the next edition that comes out?" The agent made a note of it and nodded vigorously.

Gaiman gave me a smile that seemed to say "I'm glad we got that settled." So was I. He signed and I exhaled.

He handed the books to me and I thanked him. "You're very welcome," he said.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

The Carter Family

Anyone who says they love country music and has never heard of The Carter Family just flat-out doesn't know what they're talking about. It's like someone claiming to love Rock 'n Roll who eschews The Beatles or Elvis.

In the mid-1920's, the tall lanky A.P. Carter from Clinch Mountain, Virginia began roaming the countryside searching for folk songs. He learned them from mountain folk and arranged them for himself, his wife Sara, and their sister-in-law Maybelle. It was literally a local family act. Nobody had any idea anything would come of it.

The Carter Family's music by today's standards seems primitive and simple. A.P. sang bass (badly) and sometimes played fiddle. Sara had a lovely backwoods voice that once you hear, you'll never forget. It's beautiful, sad, haunting. Sara also played autoharp and occasionally guitar. But Maybelle was the one with the true instrumental gift.

Maybelle's playing style continues to influence country and bluegrass guitarists. She had a way of playing the melody on the bass strings while strumming chords that still amazes me. On many songs, you can hear some great blues licks. I don't know what she listened to in those Virginia mountains, but something spoke to her and stuck. She was incredible.

The Carter Family songs are usually dark in tone and often deal with lost love, a dead or dying family member, death in general, or a longing for an afterlife better than the life they lived during the Great Depression. Starkly simple, yet amazingly powerful songs. They still pack a wallop 70+ years after their release. I suspect they always will.

At the time, radio stations in the U.S. had fairly strict limits on broadcast strength. Mexico, however, had no such restrictions, so when the Carters signed on with a Mexican radio station, their music was heard all over the United States. At the height of the Great Depression, the Carter Family's music reassured down-and-out people that they were not alone; the Carters knew their hurts, their pains, their broken dreams.

Even after their success was assured and the Depression was over, the Carter Family couldn't escape another type of devastation. Sara separated herself from A.P., but still remained a part of the musical act. Yet A.P. continued to love her until his death. It's a heartbreaking story, well documented in the excellent book Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone?


Most of the Carter Family recordings from their early years (1928-35) are available on CD in sets or individual discs. The Rounder label released several individual discs years ago, but these are often hard to find. Many excellent import compilations are available. I bought a five-disc set (which I'm listening to right now) from JSP Records in London, very reasonably priced on Amazon:


The Bear label in Germany also has a set for sale which can run you up to $300. Even with 12 discs and a 220-page hardcover book included, that's a lot of money.


I don't care for the single-disc Can the Circle Be Unbroken, which consists largely of re-recordings of tunes from the late 1930's that they had recorded better in the late 1920's. But for a first-time listener, it's probably a good place to start:


Okay, that's two long posts in a row. A shorter one next time. Or maybe not...I'm going to a Neil Gaiman booksigning tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005


A few of the Clarion Class of 2004 have been knocking around the pros and cons of self-publishing. Although self-publishing has experienced an enormous amount of growth during the past few years, my friends and I agree that:

1 – Self-publishing is not the route we want to take.
2 – Self-publishing may be good for special projects (especially non-fiction), but it's probably not going to get you long-term wide exposure/recognition.
3 – In most cases, Self-publishing is a cheat.

Let me explain each point:

1 – Only one of us involved in the discussion could name a self-published sf/f book that was very good (and it was eventually picked up by a major publisher). The traditional route – while it often provides little room for feedback on what you're doing right or wrong – still accounts for 99% (or more) of the significant sf/f fiction being published today. Having said that, a friend of mine who is a very good mystery writer insists on self-publishing. He's also very much a people person and enjoys promoting himself 50 weekends out of the year. Self-publishing works for him and he's very satisfied with it. But I believe he's the exception.

2 – My friend Trent has a relative who self-published a non-fiction work that he was passionate about, but realized would probably have very limited appeal. I think in those cases, self-publishing is probably the way to go, especially if you can target that limited audience by word-of-mouth, conventions, web sites, whatever. I've got a book for first-year band directors that's about one-third finished. The market for that book is so limited, self-publishing might be an option. (But first I have to get off my ass and finish it. That's another topic for another time....)

3 – The biggest problem I see in self-publishing is that many writers either don't know the truths of the publishing industry or else they're running away from them. As one of my friends commented, many writers probably think "Hey, my stuff is just too different; that's why it's not being published." Could be. Could also be because it's not very good. But my shunning the traditional channels, most never learn that.

I know that many writers send work out through the traditional channels, get a few rejections and think "Screw this." What a lot of them have never been told is that there's a process that you have to learn. It's not an easy process. I certainly haven't figured it all out yet or I'd have stuff published on a larger level. But even long-time published writers still get rejection slips. (And conversely, crap still gets published every day.)

The first thing you have to know is what an editor wants. Sometimes even a magazine's guidelines aren't much help. Reading the magazines you submit to certainly helps and reading good writing helps. But as some famous coach once said, somebody's got to tell you what you're doing wrong or you have no chance.

An old band director mentor once told me, "To have a good band, you've only got to go through three steps: Step 1 – Know what a good band sounds like. Step 2 – Know what your band sounds like. Step 3 – Know how to get from Step 2 to Step 1.

How do you do that? Read good work. Study it. Imitate it for awhile if you have to. (Just don't try to pass off someone else's work OR style as yours.) Go to conventions, meet editors, talk to them, ask them what they're looking for. They'll tell you. Really, they will.

Find good readers who will give you an honest assessment of your work. Not Mom, not Aunt Susie, not a family member. Find a first reader who you can run things by.

Send stuff out. Send more stuff out. Keep sending it out, even after it gets rejected. I've got stories that have been rejected eight or more times. I still send 'em out. (But eventually you've got to either rework the story or forget it and move on.)

I know, the form rejection letters tell you nothing. But if you've got a first reader, if you're studying good work, if you're giving yourself to your writing, if you believe in yourself, EVENTUALLY you're going to get a different kind of rejection letter. It will not be a form letter, but a typed or hand-written note from an editor. It will convey that fact that you're close and getting closer. When that happens, throw a party. You've made a major step.

Maybe I'm crazy (just ask Cindy), but I think the journey is the fun part. If it was easy, everybody would be a published writer. My rejection slips show I'm getting better. I'm much better than I was this time last year. I'm getting closer. I'm just afraid that writers who self-publish never learn any of the lessons you learn from going down the traditional route. Sure, it's frustrating. Sometimes it hurts and sometimes it's depressing. Sometimes you even regret what you've done to trees. But you keep trying and keep believing. Keep on keepin' on. Hang in there.

Now Playing = Atomic Funk – Various artists

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

YA Novel

I'm really excited about the YA novel I'm working on. I put down about 1000 words this morning and am still energized to do more. I'd been cranking out about 500 words a day, but today I feel like the dam has burst. Right now I'm 14,000 words into it, six chapters. I've never seen a word count on a YA novel, but I would guess this one will probably end up between 60,000 and 80,000 words.

My main concern is that I can now see several different directions the novel can take. I don't know that we ever talked about that at Clarion, what to do when you have many options. I suppose choose the one that appeals to you most and the one that does the most unexpected things.

Still listening to those CDs. I discovered that alphabetical order can be a very unsettling thing. Although I love them both, listening to Buddy Holly immediately after Jimi Hendrix is a real shock to the system.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

A Few Random Thoughts

Watched a little horror film I'd heard about through the grapevine, May (2002), which was a nice surprise. Great job by Angela Bettis as the title character. I've been thinking about the film all day. Not a masterpiece, but quite good. Recommended.

Wrote only a few hundred words on my YA novel, but I "structured" a good bit of what's to come. It's a little creepy revisiting both my own experiences as a sixth-grader in a new school (it was actually fifth grade for me) and those of the kids I taught. A new school - or anything new - can be terrifying to a 12-year-old. But I'm having fun with the novel. (No nightmares yet.)

I'm also having fun with the Wolverton CD Collection Tour. I'm glad to have been partially responsible for those of you conducting your own tours. A few minutes ago I listened to Kelly Joe Phelps's Roll Away the Stone, which contains some outta-sight blues guitar and vocals. Gotta check out more stuff by that guy.

Now Playing = Tales of Mystery and Imagination - The Alan Parsons Project

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Something About Those Rejection Slips...

I don't know why, but lately the rejection slips tend to light a fire underneath my butt. Got one this afternoon from Gordon. I appreciate his notes - he always takes the time to tell me exactly what didn't work for him. It's this story's first time out. As long as it's a story I think fits his magazine, I'll continue to give him first shot.

I am somewhat concerned that I only have two stories out there right now...I've been focusing on a new novel, but I really need to give equal time to the short stories. Steven Barnes recommends learning the craft of the short story first - I'm sure other professional writers do also. But I don't see anything wrong with chipping away on that novel if it's something you feel strongly about.

But here's the good and the bad about the short stories: Things start out pretty well, I feel good about where they're going, then BAM! Don't know what to do next. This has happened with the last two or three stories. I think it really boils down to the fact that I don't know the character(s) as well as I should and need to spend more time there. We shall see.

Now Playing = "No Expectations" from Beggars Banquet - Rolling Stones

Monday, September 12, 2005

CD Purging

It seems like every year I try to listen to every CD I own. It really doesn't take as long as you might think, especially since I work at my computer for several hours a day.

Ever put on a CD you haven't heard for awhile (or completely forgot you owned), listen to a couple of tracks and say to yourself, "What was I thinking?" Well, since I'm only about a dozen discs into the project, that hasn't happened yet. I'm sure it will.

But I did find a nice surprise today. Fleetwood Mac's Tusk. Now let me qualify this by saying I believe Fleetwood Mac is probably THE most over-rated band of all time. Christine McVie's songs are often nice, but mostly fluff. Lindsey Buckingham never dazzled me with his guitar work. And sorry, Rumours is listenable, but it's no masterpiece. Come on, REALLY listen to "Dreams" "You Make Lovin' Fun" "The Chain" etc. and tell me that's greatness.

But Tusk is different. Some people call it Fleetwood Mac's White Album, which is probably accurate. The album is very experimental, nothing like anything the group did before. (You should also understand that the early incarnation of Fleetwood Mac [pre-1975] is nothing like the band from their self-titled 1975 album on. Sort of like the difference between Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship.)

The album came right on the heels of the ridiculously successful Rumours. I wonder if the band members thought, "Man, we'll never top that; let's just go nuts and have fun." They went nuts.

But the results work, at least for me. (Even the bloated USC Marching Band can't ruin the title track. Well, not much.) Tusk is unpredictable, humorous, angry, sloppy and ragged in places, and downright confusing in others. But at least they took a few chances. (If you check it out, get the two-disc version. The one-disc version chops up one of the band's best songs, "Sara.")

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Live Jazz/Teaching Again/The Return of the Cowboys

Cindy and I went to hear the Airmen of Note last night, featuring jazz clarinetist Eddie Daniels. Some great music, but I wished that Daniels had varied the program a little more and talked about himself a lot less. Still very enjoyable.

Before the concert, Cindy and I discovered a great little restaurant in NW DC called Dish. They specialize in dishes "like Mom used to make," but zipped up a bit. Very nice, moderately+ priced.

This afternoon I taught for the first time in five years, at the Capitol Hill DC Writers Way workshop. I was a little nervous at first, but got back into teaching mode quickly. I've got a really great group to work with. They're already producing some nice writing.

Are the Cowboys back? They looked pretty impressive beating San Diego 28-24 at San Diego. If the 'Boys can stay healthy, I think they could make some real noise this season...but I don't want to get my hopes up too much. It's only Week One. (By the way, it's not easy being a Cowboy fan in Washington DC, but I've been a loyal follower since 1975. Can't stop now.)

Read "The Calorie Man" by Paolo Bacigalupi in the Oct/Nov F&SF double issue. An outstanding and frightening story, one that I think should be considered when talking about the best stories of the year.

Now Playing: Roses in the Snow - Emmylou Harris

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Books to Louisiana/Where's Bob?/Writing

At church yesterday there was a whole list of places in Mississippi and Louisiana accepting all sorts of donations for Katrina relief. One church in Lafayette, LA requested books, so I sent a box this morning, consisting of lots of kids books and novels. Hope the books will help take someone's mind off of things for a few hours.

Went to Costco for a number of household items, hoping to find Dylan's new Bootleg Vol. 7, to no avail.

But I got a nice chunk of the third chapter of my YA novel done. That felt good. Also began revisions on a short story...hoping it will tell me how it wants to end. Didn't happen this time. Can't force these things.

New double F&SF came today - cause for celebration! Of course Cindy didn't quite see it that way...

Monday, September 05, 2005

The 70's Forgotten Film Retrospective # 4: The Driver

It's happened to all of us: you see a movie from the 70's (or some other decade we'd like to forget) that starts out fairly interesting and then some visual aspect or snippet of dialogue jumps out at you and screams "I'm from the 70's!" and blows the rest of the movie for you. That really doesn't happen with 1978's The Driver. In fact, you almost feel like the movie is too contemporary; it's really a noir film ripped out of the late 40's/early 50's and dropped into the 70's. And for the most part, director Walter Hill pulls it off.

The Driver (Ryan O'Neal, in a cool, ice-in-the-veins performance) is sort of a freelance getaway driver for hire. Extremely detached, he lives the minimalistic life in spades: he lives in cheap hotels and appears to own only the clothes on his back. He doesn't even have much to say. (I read that his entire dialogue adds up to less than 350 words.) His standards are high and he won't work with just anyone. Maybe that's why he's never been caught.

Bruce Dern is The Detective, a guy who's seen it all, done it all, and knows it all, and isn't shy about telling you so. He's trying to catch The Driver (he calls him The Cowboy) while incidentally trying to train a new detective. Dern tells him at one point, "I'm not here to teach you. But you're here to learn."

Dern always has the ability to play smug, yet intelligent types who know they have the brass to get what they want and don't mind rubbing your face in the asphalt every once in awhile to remind you of it.

Isabele Adjani plays The Player, the most oblique character in the film. Who is she? Who's she really siding with? What's her angle?

The characters make the film. (They don't have names and appear in the credits as The Driver, The Detective, etc. How cool is that?) Aside from The Detective, dialogue is stripped down to a minimum. (And I believe this causes his character to suffer in a few scenes.) With so little dialogue, every action from the characters, every glance, every nuance is important. What they don't tell you is usually more important than what they do tell you. The Driver could almost work as a silent film; it's so visual, you don't really need very many words.

As for the visuals --- To call The Driver a car chase picture really doesn't do it justice. Sure, there's some great chase scenes, no doubt. This film was sort of at the tail end of the classic car chase scenes like Bullitt and The French Connection (which weren't car chase movies). They don't look as high-tech as today's car chases, but they're still impressive (although some of them go on a little too long).

On the DVD I saw, The Driver clocks in at 90 minutes with a bonus deleted three-minute introduction that was cut from the film. I think it was wisely cut; it explains too much too early, taking away a lot of the fun. Watch it only after you've seen the entire film.

I've read that a 135 minute version exists, presumably with more chase scenes. I don't see how added chase scenes would help. The movie works at the 90 minute pace for a reason. Recommended.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Gulf Coast Relief Effort

I found out that all of my relatives in Central Mississippi are safe. Some suffered no damage to their houses, some severe, but as far as we know, no one's home was completely destroyed. They all have their electricity back on and are in reasonably good health.

My cousin in New Orleans did make it out safely. He's staying with his brother in Memphis.

Cindy and I just made our first donation to help the hurricane victims. Again, I encourage everyone to give anything you can. Any amount would be appreciated. We plan to give more in the next few days.

Here's a link listing several organizations that are accepting donations:


A Challenge

It's painful for me to watch the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. I grew up in Mississippi and visited the Gulf Coast dozens of times. In graduate school at the University of Southern Mississippi, I drove down to New Orleans at least a couple of times a semester. These places are very close to me and I hurt for all those affected. Even with the news footage, I can't imagine what those people are going through and how they'll even begin to reconstruct their lives.

I want to challenge everyone reading to postpone that book purchase, that movie ticket, that restaurant dinner --- whatever you might normally spend on yourself this week and donate some much-needed money to the hurricane relief effort. To be honest, Cindy and I haven't decided exactly where to send our money - there are so many options (and I'll try to post some of them here this afternoon) - but we will send something out today. I hope that you will too. And please take just a moment and say a prayer for these people.